Ian Forrester and Matthew Cashmore of BBC Backstage, the Beeb’s developer network, talked to us about the challenges and opportunities of opening up your data to third parties.


What was behind the decision to launch 

BBC Backstage

, and have you experienced any resistance from inside the organisation?

Backstage.bbc.co.uk was the governors response to the review of the BBC’s online services by Philip Graf. The BBC has always been committed to using open standards and Backstage was a good chance to show our true commitment to our audience. Yes there were pockets of resistance, but as the industry changed, so has the BBC.


Why do you think the UK is behind the US and other countries when it comes to fostering Web 2.0 start-ups, and how can BBC Backstage help?

I think it’s a complex question, which many people are puzzling over. And the answer isn’t simple either. The US does have a culture of enterprising and failing is no bad thing. But on top of that, it also attracts top students to its best universities, where they get time and grants to try out quite radical things. Then on top of those, you have lots of money flowing around which means you can really try things out and build a business model as you go.

Backstage can help with the radical and trying new things. Backstage is simply a developer and design network where you can float ideas and build prototypes. We have many companies watching Backstage for ideas, talent and great prototypes they can take forward. The Backstage community is also full of people who run their own business or have done in the past. This means there is a wealth of experience and knowledge, which is attracting even more.


If a developer wanted to take his or her app commercial, how could they go about it and what licensing issues would they have to consider?

All BBC content under backstage is non-commercial. If someone wanted to license BBC content for commercial purposes, Backstage would facilitate making contact with a commercial provider, but wouldn’t be involved in taking the prototype any further.

It’s also worth pointing out that commercial success doesn’t have to be directly through the Backstage process. We had a widget submitted to the widget contest we just had. It didn’t win, but talking to the creator afterwards at our widget bash, he had set up a small business creating widgets for other companies, and the Backstage widget was his first ever widget. We’ve also seen several prototypes moving forward commercially in partnership with other data providers.


Are there any ways in which companies/marketers can go about tapping into BBC Backstage and BBC APIs, or plans to offer them to companies in the future?

There’s nothing stopping companies or marketers getting involved in Backstage and trying out new ideas, as long as there for non-commercial use. Like everyone else, the ideas and prototypes are IP neutral, so Backstage could really be a playground for new concepts.


When you say the platform is for non-commercial applications, how do you police that, and how do you separate commercial vs non-commercial?

Honestly, it’s down to the talented BBC lawyers, they have built a very strong licensing framework which they use to evaluate each occurrence.


Can you give us some examples of interesting Backstage apps the BBC has gone on to adopt?

There are a few which are currently being developed in-house for use in and on the BBC. The biggest one is the Home page archive, which tracks all the changes to the BBC Home Page.


Have any developers been successful in having their apps adopted by outside organisations or gaining VC deals yet?

As far as I know there have been a couple of prototypes which have been picked up and made into a business. One of them is a traffic service which was using BBC Traffic data to prototype with, but they raised some funding and paid for richer data from another commercial provider, which also meant they could build a commercial service, which when I last checked was still in a beta state. They’re still involved in the backstage community.


What APIs do you now have available and what APIs will be next to be opened up?

We just started opening up our Weather Feeds which has been on going for a while. As for new API’s, well its not a lot to imagine there may be some more TV stuff when the BBC iplayer launches.


What are the difficulties of negotiating these APIs with different parts of the BBC?

It’s actually not as hard as it used to be, like the question regarding resistance to change. Things have changed quite a bit and releasing content under backstage is becoming quite common. The biggest hurdle now is the technical infrastructure of keeping the API’s robust, stable and with no effect on internal, or live, services.


When do you plan to offer access to video content?

We have AV RSS feeds which point directly to the stream url’s. Also we’re just starting to trial video podcasting, which means the content is easily downloadable, shareable and there’s no digital restrictions.


Any plans to help promote developers’ apps through BBC programmes?

This is a tricky area, which we will not do at this current stage. We will not undermine commercial providers or give single developers a unfair advantage over there commercial counter-parts.

We actually have a backstage like commercial project called Innovation Labs which has many successes in getting ideas funding internally and externally.


Would you encourage other broadcasters/big media firms to offer APIs?

If they want to be taken seriously by audiences now and into the future, then yes. There is a long tail of consumers who you can not reach by yourselves. Your audience will help you reach a much wider audience and an audience who you may not have thought about, or would have cost too much to invest in before.


One developer has created an outdoor screen for BBC News on Second Life, and I see someone has added another screen using an RSS importer. What other mash-ups involving Second Life do you see happening?

Certainly it’s something we’re looking at with a lot of interest. I don’t believe we will simply setup shop like Reuters, unless there’s some benefit to the British public and something which the BBC can bring to Second Life.

BBC Radio & Music have already created an island where people can come and interact with live events and gigs, as well as building in game radios that users can carry with them and listen to BBC Radio 1 whenever they’d like.


Richard Maven spoke to Ian Forrester, senior Backstage producer and Matthew Cashmore, Backstage’s development producer.

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